From The Works of Aretino, Translated into English from the original Italian, with a Critical and Biographical Essay by Samuel Putnam, Illustrations by The Marquis de Bayros in Two Volumes, Volume I., Chicago: Pascal Covici, 1926; pp. 77-94.
THE LIFE OF MARRIED WOMEN
She, having a wish to joust with the lances of the night —
The Second Day of the Capricious Dialogues of Aretino, in which Nanna recounts to Antonia the Life of Married Women.
And they even made a sermon about her.
NANNA: There was a matron of forty years who in our town had the reputation of great wealth. She came of most worthy family and was the wife of a doctor who did miracles with his learning, which he got out of great books. Now, this one that I am telling you about always went dressed in gray, and the morning that she had not heard five or six masses, she did not rest that day. She was a string of ave-marias, a claw-saint and a whipchurch, and she always fasted on Fridays for all the masses, except in March, and at the mass she would make the responses like a clerk, singing the vespers as the brothers do; and it was said that she even went so far as to wear an iron girdle about her carnal parts.
ANTONIA: For that I blame Santa Verdiana.
NANNA: This one performed a hundred times more abstinences than she, and she wore nothing but clogs, and on the eve of the feast of San Francesco de la Vernia and that of the Resurrected she would eat only so much bread as you could hold in your fist, drinking nothing but a little pure water, and she would remain till the middle of the night in prayer, and what little she slept was on a bed of nettles.
ANTONIA: Without a nightgown?
NANNA: I cannot tell you. Now, it happened that a certain hermit was doing cut-throat penances in a retreat about a mile, or perhaps two, from the town, and he would come among us every day begging some little thing by which to live, and he never returned to his hermitage empty-handed, for the sackcloth that covered him, that 80 skinny face of his, the beard that reached to his girdle, his tangled mane of hair and the rock which he always carried in his hand, in accordance with the practice of St. Jerome, moved the whole community to piety. To this venerable hermit, the doctor’s wife, whose husband was prospering by the ills of many in the city, turned her attention, and she did him great charity. She often went to his hermitage, certainly a devout spot and a delightful one, and from it she would bring back a few sour pickles in the belief that she was tasting sweet ones.
ANTONIA: What sort of place was the hermitage?
NANNA: It stood on a little mountain of rising ground, and it bore the name of Calvary. In the center stood a cross with three big wooden spikes, which greatly frightened the common wenches, and this cross had on its neck a crown of thorns and on each arm two hanging lashes made of knotted cord, and at the bottom was a death’s head, and on one side, fastened into the earth, was a sponge above a reed, and on the other sides a piece of iron in the form of a rusty javelin, on the top of which was an old partisan’s pike. Where the mountain sloped downward was a little garden, around which rosebushes made a low wall, with a postern gate made of the interwoven withes of briny shrubs; this gate had a wooden key of its own, and in the whole plot one would not have been able to find a single stone, so clean did the Hermit keep the place. The squares of the garden were separated by pretty little paths, and they were full of various herbs, on this side crisp lettuces and saltworts, on the other side fresh greens and tender, and some young garlic such as the whole compass could not raise or bear, some of the finest cabbages in the world, cap-mint, mint, anet, sweet marjoram; and the parsley, too, had its place in the little garden, in the middle of which an almond tree, one of those large ones without beards, cast its shade. Through a few little 81 rivulets flowed clear water, which, issuing from a vein among the sprightly stones at the foot of the mountain, gushed forth among the greenery; and all the time that the Hermit stole for his devotions, they spent in nourishing the little garden. Not far away stood the chapel with its steeple and two small bells, and leaning against the wall of the chapel stood the hut where the Hermit took his repose. Into this little paradise came the doctor’s wife, as I have told you, and to keep the body from being envious of the soul, this pair one fine day, having retired into the hut on account of the sun, which gave them great discomfort, proceeded, I do not know how, to work their evil ends; and as they did so, a villager (their biting tongues are the worst of all), in looking for his ass’ he-colt which had wandered from its mother, and passing (quite by accident) the hut, saw the holy couple joined together; running back to the town, he signaled the people with a few strokes on the bell, and the populace hearing him, the most of them abandoned their tasks and gathered at the church, no fewer women among them than men; and there they found the villager, who told the priest how the Hermit was working miracles. Whereupon the priest, putting on his holy frock, with the stole about his neck and the book in his hand, and with no less than fifty persons following him, arrived in the midst of a credo at the hut, where they found these two heavenly slaves, the man-servant and the maid-servant, sleeping like ditch diggers. The Hermit, snoring, held his whip to the back of the devoted lady who loved the rope; whereupon the crowd, at first view, remained silent, as a good woman does when she sees a horse and a mare, and then they broke into a laugh at seeing their ladies come to such as this, and the laugh woke the two dormice. They roused from their sleep. As they did so, the priest, seeing them joined together, cried out in a thunderous voice: Et 82 incarnatus est.
ANTONIA: I would not have believed you could go one better to the whorishness of nuns, but I see I was wrong. But tell me, the Hermit and that old Hypocrite, didn’t they die?
NANNA: Die? He drew his file out of the socket, rose to his feet, and, giving a couple pulls at the twined bryony that served him as a girdle, said: “Gentlemen, read the lives of the Holy Fathers, and then condemn me to the flames, or whatever seems good to you. The devil, in my person, has sinned, and not the body, for it would be treason to do harm to it.” And now, do you want me to tell you what happened? The big rogue, who had been a soldier, an assassin and a ruffian, and, out of desperation, had become a hermit, babbled so much that, as he stood before me, I, who know where the devil keeps his tail, and the priest, who had been advised by hearing the confession of the gentle lady, we each believed him; for I will swear by that bryony girdle of his that the spirits that tempt hermits are called succumbli and incumui.1 And this half-nun, who all the while the sackcloth Hermit was snipping away, had time to be thinking up mischief, now began to writhe, puff out her throat and choke, roll her eyes, howl and beat herself in a manner that was frightful to see, whereupon the Hermit said: “Behold, the evil spirit is upon the wretched one;” and when the mayor of the town wanted to take her, she commenced to bite and scream terribly. Finally, ten villagers led her to the church, and there they made her touch the two knuckle-bones which are said to be those of the holy innocents, and which are kept in a rude tabernacle of boughs and adored as relics; and when she had touched these for the third time, she became herself once more. And this ends the story of the doctor’s wife, who remained the little saint of the city, and they even made a sermon about her.
1 Nanna’s Malapropisms
THE LADY WHO WALKED IN HER SLEEP
My Husband, it is this cursed nature of mine.
NANNA: A very rich old man, and a very miserable old ass, had a wife of seventeen years, who was the finest little piece of flesh that I think I ever saw, with a grace so gracious that whatever she said and whatever she did was full of gentleness, and her little gestures were so lady-like and her manners were so lofty and all her little actions were so charming that they would have thrown any one into spasms of love; place a lute in her hand, and you would have sworn that she was the mistress of sweet sound; give her a sword, and she was a lady-captain; to see her dance, she was a young deer, and to hear her sing, she was a little angel, and what a wonder it was to see her sporting about simply cannot be told. Her bright little eyes, filled with I do now know what fire, aroused a feeling of love in every one, and when she ate, it seemed that she was gilding her food, and when she drank, it was as though she were giving savour to the wine; she was so sharp in her movements, and so generous, and always spoke with so much majesty and wisdom that the duchess, by comparison, would have appeared a very pish-posh. And she would dress herself out in clothes, made in certain fashions of her own, which were the object of much regard. Sometimes, she was to be seen with her hair in a coif, sometimes with it done in a braid on the top of her head, with a little bang, which, dangling over one eye, made her blink; and thus did God with one stroke slay men with love and the women with envy. Her own native manners 84 taught her all to well how to make slaves of her lovers, who were lost utterly when they beheld the trembling of her bosom, over which nature had sprinkled drops of vermilion-hued roses. She would often put out her hand in front of her, as if she desired to find some fault with it, and by so doing, she would bring a comparison between the lustre of her rings and that of her own eyes, all of which tended to dazzle the sight of the one who was ogling most intently the hand which she pretended to be regarding; she scarcely seemed to touch earth when she walked, but danced along with her eyes; and when she would take the holy water and sprinkle it over her head, she would genuflect with such a reverence that it seemed it must by the way they did it in paradise. And with all her prettinesses and all her virtues and all her graces, her father, of course, the big ox, had had to go and marry her to an old man of sixty — at least, being unwilling that any one should call him old, he confessed to sixty.
This husband of hers was called the Count, from some worthless old castle or other with two chimneys and a crumbling moat, and by virtue of certain silly old volumes, heavy with sheepskin, which had been given him, so folks said, by the emperor. Oh, he was able to lord it over the field with those young snipes who liked to fill their hide full of holes, and who came there almost every month to tourney. You would have said that he was the potta da Modona to see the way these young loafers, who had come to make fools of themselves in one way or another, doffed their hats to him. And on the day of the joustings, he would show himself in truly pontifical garb, clad in an old-fashioned coat of mail with gilded egrets, and with a wealth of violet-covered velvet above and below — not the peely kind, for velvet like that never peels — with a trencher’s cap on his head and with a cape that was a veritable 85 rose-garden, lined in green, with a collar of brocaded silver, like those which scholars used to wear on certain of their cloaks, while in his hand was a sword, very sharp, with a hilt in brass and the whole in an antique scabbard. He would first give a couple of turns up and down the stockade on foot, with a score of barefoot followers, armed with crossbows and bailiff’s gear, at his heels, a part of them being his own servants, the rest having been borrowed for the occasion. And then, he would mount a speckled mare that could not have been made to take a hurdle by a hundred pricks of the spur, much less one, and which gave out entirely just as the tourney was beginning. On these days, he always kept his wife under lock and key; on other days, a watch-dog of a gardener sniffed her tail to the church, to the feste and everywhere she went. And afterwards, in bed, he would tell her of the deeds of valor he had done when he was a soldier, and when he came to tell her of the battle in which he was made a prisoner, he would imitate the bombardment for her with his mouth, throwing himself all over the bed like a mad-man. She, poor child, having a wish to joust with the lances of the night, was on the verge of despair; and so, sometimes, she would make him get down on the floor on all fours and, fixing a girdle in his mouth in the manner of a bridle, she would leap on his back, digging her heels into his sides and treating him the same way he treated his horse. And then, being in so melancholy a way of life, she thought up a gallant piece of malice.
NANNA: I should like to know what it was.
ANTONIA: She began talking in her sleep at night, speaking in disconnected words, which at first caused the old dotard to cackle loudly, but when she came to double up her little fist and give him a swat in the eye, so that he had to poultice it with oil of rose-water, he reproved her for it greatly. But she pretended not to remember 86 what she had done or said, and in addition, she began leaving her bed, opening windows and trunks, and sometimes, she even went so far as to dress herself, whereupon the old fool would run after her, shaking all over and calling after her in a loud voice; and on one occasion it happened that, in his efforts to follow her out the door of a room, setting foot to the top of a stair which he thought led to the ground, he fell all the way down and broke himself all over, fracturing a leg and raising such an uproar that the family, on hearing his cries, which had aroused the neighborhood, came running to him and picked him up — though it would have served him right, if he had never got up. And she, pretending she had been awakened by her husband’s cries, on hearing what had happened, fell to weeping and grieved greatly, cursing the vice of sleepwalking; and night as it was, she straightway sent for the doctor to put the bones back in place.
ANTONIA: What was her object in pretending to be dreaming?
NANNA: Just to get him to fall, as he did fall, so that, breaking his bones, he wouldn’t be able to follow her. And at this, the big baby, in his jealousy, was more miserable than ever, but so vain, with his broken heart, that he had ten big strapping grooms lodged in a large hall on the ground-floor. The oldest of them was not more than twenty-four, and a misfit lot they were: the one that had a good cap had socks full of holes, and the one that had good socks had a worse doublet, and the one with a good doublet had a disastrous cloak, and the one with a good cloak had a ragged shirt; and they lived on bread and capers.
ANTONIA: Why did the rogues put up with it?
NANNA: Because of the liberty he gave them. And now, Antonia dear, this lady of ours had given a look at this company; and since she had the old blockhead safe in 87 bed, with his thigh between a pair of splints, she resumed her dreaming, and, throwing her arms about and crying always “O la! O la!,” she would jump out of bed and, opening the door, she would leave him to strangle with calling for her. And then, she would go to the grooms who, around a lamp that was always about to sputter out, were gambling away a few farthings which they had stolen from their master in the purchase of trifles. Giving them goodnight, she would put out the light, and drawing upon her the first that came to hand, she would commence to sport with him, and in three hours which she spent with them, she would try them all ten, twice for each one; and returning up above, freed of the humors which had caused her to go rambling about, she would say: “My husband, it is this cursed nature of mine which, like a witch, forces me to go prowling about the house all night.”
Let us set up our tabernacle here.
NANNA: And now, we come to a lady who was taken with a great desire for a prisoner. The Mayor, not caring to hang himself, had nothing to do but give this fine fellow to the gallows. This latter, in his twentieth year, upon the death of his father, had been left heir to fourteen thousand ducats, half in cash and the rest in possessions, including the furnishings of what was really a palace, rather than a house. And in the course of three years, he had eaten, gambled and bawdied away all his denarii and, disposing of his farms, in three years more he had done away with the rest. Not being able to sell one of his houses, because his father’s will forbade it, he had torn it down and sold the stones; and then, he started doing away with the furniture, now pawning a sheet, now selling a table-cloth and, finally, first one bed and then the other. It was one thing today and tomorrow something else, until he was on the verge of ruin; and then, having thrown away his house for nothing, he was left without a coat to his back. And so, he had given himself to all the crimes which a man not merely might commit, but might imagine: to perjury, homicide, larceny, robbery, cards and false dice:2 to treasons, deceits knaveries and assassinations. He had been in various prisons, for four and five years at a time, and in these he had had more rope than dinners. He had ended up, if I am to tell you the truth, by spitting in the face of a certain good Master.89
ANTONIA: The ribald traitor.
NANNA: He was so ribald that being conceived by his mother was the least of the sins he ever committed. And being a beggar so far as everything else was concerned, he was as rich as could be in syphilis; indeed, he had enough to share with a thousand of his fellows, and he still would have had a world of it left for himself. While this cut-throat was in prison, a doctor, hired by the community to care for the poor prisoners, while treating the left of one who was eaten up with cancer, remarked: “I have cured nature, against all the rules of nature, in that fellow there, and don’t you think I shall be able to cure your leg?” The fame of this unnatural specimen came to the ears of the lady I was telling you of, and when she heard of this wicked wretch who was lying there in prison, she burned more than, so ‘’tis said, did the Queen for the bull; and as there was no manner or means by which she could carry out her fantasy, she thought of committing a crime, so she might be placed in the same prison with this spit-on-the-cross. And so, when Easter time came, she went to communion without confessing herself, and being taken in the act, she insisted she had done no wrong. When the thing had come for judgment to the mayor, he caused her to be taken and bound with a cord; and then, she confessed that the cause of her fall had been the unbridled desire she had for the root of the fellow, whose eyes were so turned into his head and so small he could scarcely see out of them, while his nose was large and flattened into his face, with a deep trench across it, with two of Job’s boils so big they looked like slipper-buckles. He was ragged, stinking, filthy and all covered with lice of every sort. And to this fellow, the Mayor wisely gave the wench, saying: “Let him be the penance for your sin per infinita seculorum.” But she, upon being confined for life, was as joyful as one who 90 had just gained his liberty. And ’tis said that she said, as she made proof of that big roasting-ear: “Let us set up our tabernacle here.”
ANTONIA: How big was that roasting ear that you are telling me about? Was it as big as that of a young ass?
ANTONIA: And then what happened?
NANNA: While she was contented in the jail, the land became greatly annoyed with the Mayor, so that the latter was forced, loving justice, to condemn to the gallows the aforesaid malefactor; and having given him his ten days time . . . The lust-filled wench had no sooner gone to prison than the news, spreading through the city, created much talk among the populace, the artisans, and, above all, the ladies. Nothing else was to be heard in the streets, at the windows or on the terraces but hilarious gossipings and smutty jokes about her; and wherever six of these gossips could gather about a pillar of holy water, they would stand there for two hours chattering. Among the other groups, there was one in my neighborhood, and there was also a certain respectable country woman who, as soon as she had heard it, seeing the crowd hanging from a rock to listen, said: “Since we are women, an act of ribaldry like this is an insult to us all. We ought to go right away to the palace and drag her out of the prison with fire, and ride her on a cart and tear her with redhot pincers. We ought to stone her, flay her alive and crucify her.” And with these words, all puffed up like a toad, she went her way home, as though all the honor of the world rested on her shoulders.
ANTONIA: What a beast.
NANNA: Now when the ten days time had been given the wretch, this wouldn’t-spit-in-church that I am telling you of heard about it — she who wanted to run to the prison and drag the other one out with fire. And now 91 she, smitten with sudden compassion, began to think to herself what a great loss the land was going to suffer in losing its big cannon, the fame of which alone, to say nothing of the experience, drew the poorly satisfied as a lodestone does a needle or a straw. And then it was, she fell into a frenzy to enjoy it — the old spurn-sacrament, speaking with all reverence — and so it was, she came to think up the most devilishly subtle piece of malice that was ever heard of.
ANTONIA: What was it she thought of, if God will forgive you for speaking of such things?
NANNA: Well, she had an infirm husband at home, who was out of bed for two hours at a time and flat on his back for two days; and sometimes, he had such constrictions of the heart that it seemed he would pass away in a fit of choking. And then it was, she heard that one of those sweep-brothers (may the devil take them) might save one who was going to justice by meeting him on his way to the gallows and saying: “This is my husband.”
ANTONIA: Why, I never heard of such a thing.
NANNA: And so, she came to think of putting her husband out of the way and then, with the authority of the law, taking the condemned wretch for a spouse. And while she was thinking of this, her poor unfortunate husband, crying “Oimè, oimè,” closing his eyes, clenching his fist and doubling up his legs, was about to pass on; whereupon she, who was like a cart of tunney fish, being wider than she was long, put a cushion on his mouth and sat upon it; and with no other assistance, she caused his soul to go to the place where the holy bread comes from.
ANTONIA: Oh, oh, oh.
NANNA: And then, raising a great hue and cry, and tearing her hair, she roused all the neighbors who, knowing the indisposition of the poor man, did not doubt that 92 he had choked to death in one of his fits. Having buried him honorably enough, for she was decently rich, this mad old bitch, it’s the truth I’m telling you, straightway betook herself to a brothel. Having, neither on her own side nor her husband’s, any relative that was worth two denarii, there was no one to hinder her; and she gave folks to believe that she had been driven to madness by the death of her husband. And while she was there, the morning came of the day on which justice was to be done, and the land was emptied of men, and of women as well, and all assembled in the house of the Mayor to hear sentence of death pronounced on the one who had merited a thousand deaths. But the latter merely laughed, when he heard the Cavaliere saying: “It is pleasing to God and to his magnificence, the Mayor . . . what have you to say before you die?” And taken out of the prison and led into the public place, with his feet in stocks and his hands manacled, he was brought to a pile of straw, where he stood between two comforters, making no gruff face at all at the painted Bible which they handed him to kiss. As if it was no affair of his whatever, he babbled of a thousand foolish things, and every one who came up to him he called by name. When morning had passed, the great bell of the Commune, tolling slowly, slow, gave the signal for the justice that was to be done; and when the ecclesiastical standards had been brought out, and the sentence of condemnation had been read, which lasted till evening, the malefactor with the most resounding voice came down the way with a rope about his neck and a tinsel crown upon his head, signifying that he was the King of Ribaldries. And to the sound of the trumpet, in the middle of a throng of bailiffs, with the whole populace at his heels, the condemned man passed the crowded benches and the roofs and windows, filled with women and children. 93 And so they came to the place where the she-wolf stood, waiting with beating heart, to throw herself on the neck of the big glutton, with the same madness with which one ridden with fever hurls himself on a pail of fresh water. Without any mistake, she made her way furiously to the front, forcing an opening through the crowd with her loud cries, tearing her hair and beating her palms. And throwing herself on him, she said: “I am your wife.” Seeing that justice had been prevented, the crowd stepped all over one another’s heels and raised such an uproar that it seemed all the bells in the world, by a single stroke, were calling to fire, to arms, to a sermon and to a feast day. When the news reached the Mayor, he was forced to maintain the laws of the region; and the traitor, having been saved, was led away to hang himself on the forks of the wicked old dame.
ANTONIA: Surely we’re coming to the end of the world.
NANNA: Ha, ha, ha!
ANTONIA: What are you laughing at?
NANNA: At the thought of that other, who became a Lutheran from living in prison all by herself. For she remained there, with three daggers in her heart. One was at seeing her lover led away, the second at believing him hanged, and the third came with hearing that her castle, her city and her state had been possessed by another.
ANTONIA: May God do good to God, who punished her with those three daggers.
Here ends the Second Day
Capricious Dialogues of Aretino.
2 dadi falsissimi.